Review Summary: Pearl Jam's 10th studio album probably won't win them a legion of new fans, but it shows why they are still so vital to rock music...
Let's play a game. Imagine Mount Rushmore and the four presidents whose busts form it: George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson. Now, let's take the "Big 4" if you will of Seattle grunge: Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam. On a Mt. Rushmore of grunge music, Soundgarden would serve as the Washington, by virtue of being among the first bands to play this style of music. Alice In Chains would be Roosevelt, most unlike the other three and most radical. Nirvana obviously would be Lincoln, as they both took grunge to it's peak as a musical movement and guided the world out of the often-dreadful '80s era of crap-rock. The other obvious reason that Nirvana would be the Lincoln of a grunge Mt. Rushmore is simple: both ended way before their time.
This leaves us with Pearl Jam. In this scenario, Pearl Jam is Thomas Jefferson: they weren't the first "grunge" band, they weren't the most radical, they didn't take grunge to the mountaintop like Nirvana singularly did, but they've been around the longest and have been the most stable. Pearl Jam has had the same core lineup since 1990: Eddie Vedder on vocals, Stone Gossard & Mike McCready on guitars, and Jeff Ament on bass. Drummer Matt Cameron (also of Soundgarden) has been in the group since 1998.
Nirvana obviously ended that night in April 1994 when Kurt Cobain did some re-decorating of his house with a shotgun, and Soundgarden and Alice In Chains both had decade+ hiatuses between new albums, but Pearl Jam have more or less kept on trucking since '98. In the process, PJ has seen their influence over rock music be solidified. Name a rock band of today, and I can bet you they were in some way inspired by Pearl Jam. But Pearl Jam now faces a generation gap: an influential, perhaps even vital part of rock music history, but they are also at the point where they could start to be considered "classic" rock by today's generation. The fact that PJ's 21st century output has been sometimes hit and miss doesn't help matters. Indeed, some fans of today probably view Pearl Jam as "washed-up" or past their prime.
When a band has been around for 20+ years, they often take a hard look around, only to realize that things are not the same. The '80s have been dead since grunge hit, but now many rock bands of today are turning to electronic influences. Grunge is no longer the most popular branch of rock music, and Pearl Jam has realized this. It is obvious that Pearl Jam took some time between 2009's Backspacer and 2013's Lightning Bolt to evaluate their legacy, both as musicians and as men. They've realized that they won't be around forever. As the saying goes, time waits for no one, and it catches up to all of us eventually. Thus, with their tenth studio album, Pearl Jam tackles their mortality head-on. However, it appears that they've been reinvigorated, as Lightning Bolt manages to sound surprisingly fresh.
There's a certain comfort in putting a Pearl Jam album: you know what you're going to get. You'll get Eddie Vedder's signature and instantly-identifiable vocals, which are still solid on Lightning Bolt, even if some oomph has faded from the boom. Stone Gossard and Mike McCready are going to bring the rock n' roll riffs, and the rhythm section of Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron is gonna hold it all down tight.
"Getaway" opens Lightning Bolt on a grooving note, and finds Vedder taking on religion, declaring "I got my own way to believe." "Mind Your Manners" also tackles religion, but musically harkens back to the punk that inspired Pearl Jam. It is a full-throttle track that sounds like nothing else on Lightning Bolt. It is not surprising that Pearl Jam takes on religion here, as one will often question their faith when faced with mortality. "My Father's Son" is a dark and racing track that gives us a glimpse into Vedder's childhood. "Sirens" is the biggest moment on Lightning Bolt, a big power ballad that is a love song. However, it is a love song of doubt and worry. Eddie Vedder essentially asks, "how long will all of this last?"
The title track is also a love song, but a much simpler one. Musically, the track has a lot of energy with an almost AC/DC-type approach. "Infallible" is a bluesy march with a hell of a hook, "By thinking we're infallible, we're tempting fate instead." "Pendulum" is one of the highlights on Lightning Bolt, a dark and brooding track that culminates with Vedder declaring "We are here and then we go, my shadow left me long ago."
The only less than stellar tracks on Lightning Bolt are softer in nature. "Swallowed Whole" just kind of rambles on lyrically, and musically there is nothing that really catches you. "Sleeping By Myself" is an update of a Vedder solo track, but it's folky approach feels a little out of place on Lightning Bolt. "Yellow Moon" is a close cousin of "Sirens" sonically, but lyrically it does not features the same level of eloquence.
"Future Days" however closes Lightning Bolt on haunting and beautiful note. On an album full of songs addressing the end, it is fitting that the last track looks forward. Vedder's love ballad is neither doubtful or worried. Instead, on "Future Days" Eddie is accepting of his mortality, but also looking forward to what the future holds.
After a decade of so-so releases, it is obvious on Lightning Bolt that Pearl Jam found a spark that has been missing of late. The irony that this spark was found while PJ mulled over their fate is not lost here. When one faces their mortality, they have two options. They can either retreat from the world, and simply wait for death to take them. Or, they can live life like every day is their last, because it could be. Pearl Jam took option #2 on Lightning Bolt. The album is unlikely to win over scores of new fans for PJ, but is also their best album in years. Although Pearl Jam faces death on their tenth studio album, they've never felt more alive.